Astro robot Amazon

Amazon’s domestic bot disparaged as bumbling privacy nightmare

Image credit: Amazon

Amid the rollout of its new smart home range, Amazon has unveiled an autonomous domestic robot, which it has pitched as a tool for home security and caregiving. However, reports have alleged that some developers on the project view it as intrusive, incompetent, and potentially dangerous.

Astro is a 'domestic assistant' that works with Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, to respond to voice commands. It can also be integrated with Amazon-owned Ring home security products, such as connected doorbells.

Astro has been designed with consumer appeal in mind. It resembles a small, squat vacuum cleaner with large wheels, a face-like display screen with large, expressive eyes, and a periscope camera that extends on a rod to the approximate height of a person.

It moves using Amazon’s 'Intelligent Motion' technology, which incorporates simultaneous location and mapping, capturing live footage of the home which can be streamed anywhere. It can be set to provide alerts, such as when the smoke alarm is triggered or broken glass detected.

Amazon, which is a specialist in facial-recognition technology, has built 'Visual ID' into Astro. During set-up, one must “enrol” the faces and voices of all people likely to be inside the home, such that the robot can recognise who to, for instance, deliver an object to, or who should be regarded as a suspicious presence.

The range of new products included the Echo Show 15 smart hub (an electronic calendar or planner), a video-calling display and projector called Amazon Glow, and a senior care and monitoring subscription service called Alexa Together. Dave Limp, senior VP of devices and services at Amazon, described the new products as the next big leaps forward and a showcase of “science-fiction becoming reality”.

Astro will be available to select customers in the US later this year. During this introductory period, it will be priced at $1,000. Ultimately, it will be available at $1,450.

Industry commentator Ben Wood of CCS Insight commented: “Unlike rivals such as Apple, Amazon is willing to bring highly experimental products to market and assess consumer reaction. Amazon has shown it has the discipline to either evolve a product, as it did with the Echo, or abandon it, as it did with the Fire Phone […] offering products resembling something from a science-fiction novel positions Amazon as an innovative company in the eyes of consumers and investors. Furthermore, if it stumbles upon a successful category, it secures the first-mover advantage.

“Astro is a bold move by Amazon, but a logical step given its expertise in robots and desire to become more integrated into consumers’ daily lives.”

He added that Astro would spark privacy debate and could prove to be “the litmus test for convenience versus privacy”.

Already, a backlash has emerged against Astro. Motherboard, which viewed documents and spoke to sources associated with the project, has concluded that the robot “tracks everything you do”. Leaked documents show that much data are collected to serve the robot’s 'Sentry' function, in which it thoroughly patrols the home for unexpected people or behaviour. When it finds a new person, it follows them around the home, collecting data until ordered to stop.

“Sentry is required to investigate any unrecognised person detected by it or Audio Event if a certain set of conditions are met,” a document said. “Sentry should first try to identify the person if they are not still unrecognised for as long as [30 seconds]. When the person is identified as unknown or 30 seconds passed, Sentry should start following the person until Sentry Mode is turned off.”

An Amazon PR manager told Motherboard that Astro is designed to handle much data onboard, including users’ visual ID.

Motherboard also reported that there is scepticism about the limited function of Astro among several developers involved with the project. One anonymous developer said: “Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity. The person detection is unreliable at best, making the in-home security proposition laughable. The device feels fragile for something with an absurd cost. The mast has broken on several devices, locking itself in the extended or retracted position, and there’s no way to ship it to Amazon when that happens.”

They added that the idea it could assist with senior care is laughable: “[Amazon is] also pushing it as an accessibility device, but with the masts breaking and the possibility that at any given moment it’ll commit suicide on a flight of stairs, it’s, at best, absurdist nonsense and marketing and, at worst, potentially dangerous for anyone who’d actually rely on it for accessibility purposes.”

Another developer said it is “a disaster that’s not ready for release”. They described it as: “A privacy nightmare that is an indictment of our society and how we trade privacy for convenience.”

Amazon has rejected these disparaging comments, telling media that the documents cited by Motherboard are outdated. It said: “These characterisations of Astro’s performance, mast, and safety systems are simply inaccurate. Astro went through rigorous testing on both quality and safety, including tens of thousands of hours of testing with beta participants. This includes comprehensive testing on Astro’s advanced safety system, which is designed to avoid objects, detect stairs, and stop the device where and when necessary.”

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